THE SNOW QUEEN
Picador, 258 pages, 978-1250067722
* * 1/2
Is there genre for writing that's too good for the novel that contains it? If so, The Snow Queen goes to the front of the class. This is a beautifully composed book whose prose soars so far above its characters one wishes Michael Cunningham had saved it for a better book. Cunningham's literary chops are well-established due to books such as The Hours (1998), which won a Pulitzer Prize; and Specimen Days (2005). Those books contained complex characters adrift in thorny situations, and were inspired by literary giants such as Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman. Alas, The Snow Queen is Hans Christian Andersen as filtered through Woody Allen's obsession with love, sex, and death, and Bret Easton Ellis' portraits of bourgeois bohos behaving badly. Cunningham gives just enough to inspire is to plow through this book and admire its gem-like sentences, but it's a toss up as to whether these justify what is, at the end of the day, a pretty lame narrative.
Those who recall Andersen's Snow Queen will recall that she rules over snowflakes that look and act like bees. Her kisses pack sting as well–the first warms, the second brings forgetfulness, and the third kills. Cunningham's book is set in 21st century Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn in the midst of uneasy and incomplete gentrification–a warren in which one can find backbiting hipsters and blood-soaked hooligans. Tyler Meeks is a 43-year-old failed musician still dreaming of a hit in his idle moments he's not wallowing in self-pity. He shares an apartment with two seeming soul mates: his wife, Beth, who is mortally ill with cancer; and his chubby gay brother Barrett who, at age 38, struggles with his own string of failures–one failed love affair after another. Toss in 56-year-old Liz, the owner of the chic secondhand shop at which all four occasionally work, and you've got a collection of people whom one holds in both pity and loathing. It would easier to feel sympathy if Tyler weren't a coke fiend, Beth a passive dishrag, and Liz an amoral cougar. Barrett is the linchpin. During a stroll through wintry Central Park that was intended to jolt him out of despair, he sees an eerie blue light in the sky that he perceives as sentient. Has he just had a religious experience? Beth's seeming miracle recovery suggests this, but is Barrett cut out for the life of mystic? The book's action toggles between 2004 and 2008 as characters seek to address anxieties ranging from trivial—Tyler's inability to write a tribute song for Beth–to more substantial, such as Beth grappling with whether she's more comfortable in near-death or sleeping walking through life.
There are several intriguing twists in the narrative, but I was left with three feelings, that left me underwhelmed by The Snow Queen. The first is that it's hard to imagine Barrett as a holy man of any more substance than a doe-eyed sophomore dabbling in crystals; the second that Beth is passively uninteresting, Tyler a jerk, and Liz a joyless opportunist. Mainly, though, the book feels more like we are reading about Cunningham writing about writing about his characters rather than giving life to them. At best I give The Snow Queen a tepid endorsement. On the plus side, at just 258 pages Cunningham gives us a book in which we don't invest a lot of time if we reach the end and feel unfulfilled. I can also imagine it would be a good read for a book group. If nothing else, Cunningham leaves his title tantalizingly ambiguous. Who is the titular snow queen: pallid Beth, icy Liz, or cocaine? Or is she a metaphor for metro New York's seduction and dangers? If that sounds like enough, by all means read this novel. Just don't expect Woolf or Whitman.